Coming Home(10/8/2015)

The People’s Republic of China is the most populous and increasingly one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world and yet their cinematic heritage is something of an afterthought around the world.  Hong Kong obviously has a long history of populist filmmaking and Taiwan has also had a thriving arthouse scene, but mainland China seems to be something of a cinematic wildcard.  The reasons for this aren’t too hard to guess, the nation’s repressive censorship requirements certainly have something to do with it, but that can’t be the full answer.  Iran is even more repressive but that hasn’t stopped them from having a major cinematic footprint.  I think another big part of it is their shameful lack of film preservation which makes movies that are relatively modern very hard to find in acceptably watchable versions.  That’s certainly a big part of why I’ve had difficulty getting a grip on Chinese cinema, and it’s something I’m trying to fix slowly and getting to know more about the country’s most famous filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, is certainly a good place to start. Yimou has gone through a number of different phases in his career.  He started out as a leading figure among the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, who started something of a new wave during the early 90s by making movies like Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum, then he started making large scale Wuxia epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers (which were probably the films that landed him a gig as the director of the famous 2008 Beijing Olymics Opening Ceremony), and right now he seems to have settled into making mid-size movies about 20th Century Chinese history with the latest being the low key melodrama Coming Home (which is of no relation to the 1978 Hal Ashby movie).

The film is set in the 60s and 70s (though it’s vague about the exact years) and deals with the personal costs of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  As the film begins a professor named Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) has been imprisoned for upwards of ten years in a re-education for holding subversive views.  His wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) has been separated from him and his daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), who was very young when he was arrested, doesn’t really know him and now aspires to become a ballet in a patriotic national troupe.   One day the wife and daughter learn that Lu has escaped from his imprisonment and are warned that if he attempts to make contact with them they are to give him no quarter.  Eventually he does make contact and the way they react to his homecoming will have pretty big ripples through the rest of their family history.

It’s not always easy to understand just how free Chinese filmmakers are to do what they want.  I think Zhang Yimou’s Hero was pretty obviously compromised by propaganda requirements for example, but the restrictions don’t always seem to be consistent and they’re perhaps less strictly regulated when one isn’t making a huge expensive blockbuster.  It’s also become quite apparent over the years that the censors there don’t seem to have much of a problem with filmmakers being critical of some of the less than glorious aspect of Chinese Communist Party’s past like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  This film certainly views the Cultural Revolution as an extremely hurtful moment that ruined lives and left deep wounds but you’ll also notice that it goes out of its way to point out that this is in the past and makes the communist party look a lot more helpful and understanding in the years afterwards.  Of course one could perhaps see some subtle message here about how the party isn’t perfect and how their misguided policies could have ramifications in the future, a point that may be rather personal to Yimou, who has recently fallen on the party’s bad side in his personal life for having broken the one-child policy.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to see Coming Home expecting it to be an overly political movie, at its heart it’s actually a bittersweet little melodrama.  There are two distinct sections of the film separated by a time leap.  The first third of the movie is excellent and could possibly stand alone as a great short film if one wanted it to with a fascinating family dynamic and a tragic ending of sorts.  The rest of the film deals with the fallout of that event and is also quite good but requires the audience to play along with it and accept a somewhat improbable development.  Light Spoilers in this second half Gong Li’s character has developed a sort of memory loss that prevents her from recognizing her beloved husband when he finally returns.  I’d be willing to believe there’s some medical feasibility to this condition if someone presented me with a similar case from real life, but it mostly feels like a screenwriterly invention that one has to just go along with.  From here the film takes on the form of a sort of realist fable as the husband does everything he can to break through to her and find a way to overcome the couple’s distance.  There’s something profoundly sad about what’s happened to the family and the way that they have to try to come together and that’s probably worth accepting an oddball high concept.

The movie is certainly beautifully made.  Yimou and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao definitely give the film a really good look.  Zhang Yimou seems to have used his clout and his track record to give this thing a much bigger budget than a low key drama like this would usually get and it apparently got released to IMAX screens in China.  I noticed it had a much more dynamic sound mix than I expected it too and the period detail was not half bad.  The cast is also amazing.  Gong Li has been working with Zhang Yimou since day one and continues to be a major talent and Chen Daoming also brings an incredible pain and emotionality to his role as a man in a really sad situation.  I wouldn’t call Coming Home a particularly extraordinary movie but it tells its story pretty well and does it with a kind of unabashed but not mawkish emotionality that we don’t really get from Hollywood anymore.

***1/2 out of Four

Sicario(9/26/2015)

Of all the major directors to emerge during the 2010s Denis Villeneuve is almost certainly the most frustrating.  He’s frustrating not because he’s bad necessarily but because his talents don’t really get used correctly.  To date the best movie that Villeneuve has made is his breakthrough, 2010’s Incendies, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (representing French Canada) and presented a strange story about a brother and sister discovering their past amidst the Lebanese Civil War.  Since then he’s made three films in Hollywood with bigger budgets and to my eyes he seems to have mostly disappointed.  I’d be tempted to say that the Hollywood system is the problem, but it seems like Villeneuve has mostly been given the freedom to work and the films he’s made don’t really feel compromised.  Rather, I’m beginning to think that the big difference between his breakthrough and his later films can be found in the writing credits.  To date Incendies is the last film that Villeneuve is the credited screenwriter on, everything he’s made since them has been written by other people more or less on spec and feel like they’ve been sitting on the black list since the late 90s.  It was with that in mind that I was a little trepidations going into Villeneuve’s latest film, Sicario, which was written by some dude named Taylor Sheridan and showed every sign of being yet another misguided effort from cinema’s great under-achiever.

Sicario is part of an increasingly crowded field of movie set on the Mexican border and dealing with the vicious cartel wars in Juarez.  The focus here is on a woman named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI field agent who specializes in SWAT style raids on homes in the Arizona area which have fallen into use by the cartels.  When a raid early in the film goes wrong she is picked out by a DOD advisor named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to take part in an elite task force that’s going after a cartel leader named Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo) who they believe they can track down by causing a lot of disturbance in drug territory and then following a lieutenant named Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino) as accidentally leads them to Alarcon.  The big picture of all of this remains mysterious to Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) however, and they’re especially disturbed by a strange member of the task force named Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) who seems to be on a mission all his own and is playing by a rulebook that is decidedly outside the normal limits of the law.

If there’s one thing I have a pet peeve about its movies that think they’re really gritty but which don’t really have the ring of authenticity to back them up.  When I say “authenticity” I don’t just mean that they’re “accurate” (although that’s obviously part of it) but that they feel like they’ve been written by someone who really knows what they’re talking about and who isn’t just stringing together some imagined idea of what “grittiness” should be.  David Simon, for example, is someone who really seems to know what “the streets” are like and who comes to a very cynical conclusions about society through his actual knowledge of the subjects at hand.  On the other hand of the spectrum is David Ayer, a guy who (prior to his stint making World War II movies and movies based on DC comics) seemed to make a career making tough talking and seemingly streetwise films like Training Day and End of Watch but then fills them with moments that ring incredibly false and it becomes patently obvious that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  I get a similar sense out of Sicario’s screenplay, which was written by a guy named Taylor Sheridan who was an actor of the TV show “Sons of Anarchy.”

Now, I have no doubt that Sheridan did a good deal of research for the movie and I’m sure a number of the details in the film are authentic but the story itself is a lot pulpier than its trappings would seem to indicate.  The same was probably true of Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 movie Priosoners, which desperately wanted to come off like a weighty drama but then quickly descended into a lot of mystery novel hokum.  The drop off into silliness isn’t anywhere near as extreme here but I think it suffers from the same basic malady.  It feels like a movie that was made by someone who went to see Zero Dark Thirty three years ago and said “dude, that’s badass, I’m going to read a bunch of articles and make my own procedural about a badass woman hunting down a dangerous person, except I’m going to fill mine with a bunch of dorm-room cynicism about, like, how messed up it is on the border.”  The movie exerts this irritating sense that it’s blowing its audience’s naïve little minds by showing how bad things are in Juarez but it’s really bringing nothing new to the table and doesn’t really have anything to say about the drug war more meaningful than “it’s really messed up and, uh, you have to become a monster to hunt monsters… I guess.”

I suppose that whole “become a monster to hunt a monster” thing is something else the film shares with Prisoners, that and the fact that Villeneuve seems to be working his ass off to class up some rather questionable material.  Once again Villeneuve does show some clear abilities behind the camera.  His ability to get the famed cinematographer Roger Deakins on board with these project helps a lot and he definitely shows some pretty good control over tone and knows how to tell stories visually.  He’s also wrangled a pretty good cast led by Emily Blunt and featuring some solid work by actors like Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro.  Del Toro’s character almost feels like a sort of ghost of the character he portrayed fifteen years ago in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, but the comparison to that infinitely smarter film about the drug wars is not flattering for Sicario.  I don’t want to come off too harshly on the film, it’s certainly a functional thriller and I am willing to recommend it on that level, but this could have and should have been so much more.

*** out of Four

Home Video Round-Up: 10/7/2015

White God (9/2/2015)

The Hungarian drama White God is both unlike anything I’ve ever seen and yet suspiciously similar to one specific film.  I’m sure it’s unintentional but it’s crazy how much this seems like an almost beat-for-beat arthouse remake of the 2011 Hollywood blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes except with dogs instead of apes and magical realism in place of science fiction. Both films involve a seemingly exceptional animal that is reluctantly abandoned by its owner and, after being abused by other humans, leads other animals in a sort of revolution against the human oppressors before coming face to face with their former owner.  It’s crazy how similar these seemingly disparate movies are.  This isn’t a criticism really because, to my tastes, White God actually does a better job of telling a story like this.  Director Kornél Mundruczó is certainly quite the discovery and has a really solid control of tone and of the film’s mysterious elements and really brings the film to life with some great visuals.  He and cinematographer Marcell Rév have certainly made one of the year’s better looking films and while I don’t exactly get what the message to the whole thing is supposed to be it certainly had me pretty interested throughout.

***1/2 out of Four

What Happened Miss Simone (9/2/2015)

I’ll be honest, up until earlier this year I hadn’t the faintest clue who Nina Simone was.  She was clearly pretty famous/infamous in the 1960s but here music lacks a certain pop appeal and as such it wasn’t the kind of stuff that would show up in commercials and get much play on the classic R&B stations which are the two big ways that musicians from the past generally seem to stay alive in the minds of here public.  However, as the whole “social justice” thing continues to be all the rage her explicitly activist music has found a new audience and in a very short period of time I’ve seen her get quoted a number of times (such as in the film Beyond the Lights).  This documentary seems to follow with the trend by focusing on Simone as a political figure more than as a musician and I can’t say it did a whole lot to endear me to her music, but that is perhaps to be expected.  There wasn’t anything too notable about the filmmaking here, it’s pretty standard talking heads stuff and it felt less like a theatrical doc and more like an episode of PBS’s “American Masters” series and I suspect that if Netflix hadn’t noticed the uptick in interest about Simone and picked this up that is probably where this would have ended up.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that of course, the docs on that show are quality productions, but they aren’t necessarily what you’d call “exciting cinema.”

*** out of Four

Slow West (9/7/2015)

The western is a genre that’s been so widely re-envisioned since around 1962 that it’s really become hard to find a new “in” to the genre.  For example, the recent film Slow West is pretty damn strange but even it doesn’t exactly feel like a radical departure from previous takes on the western.  The film was directed by a Scottish filmmaker named John Maclean and was shot in New Zealand (which can apparently double for the American West in much the way Spain once did in the era of the Spaghetti western) and as such the film focuses heavily on the experience of immigrants and outsiders in the west and specifically on a love-struck Scottsman who is attempting to find a woman he loves who has gone to the new world.  It’s not the easiest movie to describe or talk about but there is something kind of captivating about it all.  It reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in that it was slightly surreal and it focused on a city slicker’s adventures through a Western landscape that’s foreign to him, but this isn’t quite as crazy as that.  In fact I was surprised to find that this was more accessible than I expected.  I had feared that the “slow” in the title referred to the film’s pacing but the actual movie moves along just fine and there are set-pieces throughout that keep the movie pretty engaging.  I can’t say it really did anything to blow me away, but it’s pretty successful at what it does and definitely has its moments.

***1/2 out of Four

Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop (9/7/2015)

The case of Gilberto Valle, AKA the Cannibal Cop, was apparently a pretty big story in New York but personally I had never heard about it before watching this documentary about the case.  Valle was not really a cannibal… well at least there’s no evidence that he ever actually ate anyone.  Rather, he was arrested for having lurid conversations on the internet in which he fanaticized and created elaborate plans to kidnap, murder, cook, and devour women he knew.  The whole case brings up some pretty interesting questions about the legal system.  The movie really had me going back and forth on this guy; I’m inclined to think that simply talking about something on the internet shouldn’t be illegal, but then I hear some of the details about the extent to which these conversations seemed more like plans targeting real people than they do fantasies and I begin to think that maybe he did go too far and maybe there was a certain point where lay enforcement needed to step in.  Cinematically there isn’t a whole lot special going on here and the movie does feel a bit TV-ish, but it did leave me with a lot to think about and that’s definitely enough to make it worth a watch.

*** out of Four

Timbuktu (10/7/2015)

I’ve long been curious to get a better idea of what African cinema was all about, but there really just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of it.  The release of the recent Mauritanian film Timbuktu seemed like good opportunity to fill that void a little bit, especially given that it was among the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars.   The film concerns a city that was briefly taken over by Muslim extremists who imposed a number of very repressive laws to regulate religious morality.  The film was a French co-production and has a bigger budget than a lot of African films seem to but it’s not without its production value limitations.  For one thing, the movie could have used a few extras.  The real Timbuktu has a population of 54,000 people, making it a pretty large town, but in the film it looks like a really tiny village.  The film also isn’t big on exposition or arcs.  It begins after the militants have taken over and ends before they’ve left and we’re just kind of thrown into it and there’s no central character to really follow.  It’s ultimately a pretty episodic movie but it covers some really interesting ground and gives a glimpse into situation that we don’t often get a view of.

*** out of Four

Phoenix(9/13/2015)

If there’s one thing I don’t miss about school it’s that queasy feeling you get when you come to class without having done the required reading.  Even worse is when you try to do the reading by skimming the chapter at the last minute, possibly on the bus ride on your way, and kind of hope that you can fake it.  The only thing that gives me that feeling today is when a seemingly important movie opens up and I don’t feel prepared to address it because I slept on the director’s previous work.  That recently happened to me when director Christian Petzold’s Phoenix opened up and I immediately regretted that weekend in early 2013 when I decided to blow off the chance I had to see his international breakthrough Barbara as well as the many chances I to watch it on Netflix in the two ensuing years.  So, I ended up literally watching Barbra the day before I saw Phoenix, which wouldn’t be a problem for a normal person, but I generally try to space out my viewing of movies that have common link to let them stew in my head.  It was kind of weird seeing the two movies back to back and I want to say from the outset that I really liked Barbra and that Phoenix might have suffered a little bit in comparison.

The film is set in Berlin during the immediate aftermath of World War II and concerns itself with a Jewish woman named Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) who was a somewhat prominent nightclub singer before the war but was eventually sent to the concentration camps.  She survived the Holocaust, but her face was disfigured over the course of her time there.  She’s smuggled back into Berlin by her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) and gets a cosmetic surgery in an attempt to look as much like her old self as possible but her psychological scars run deeper.  She wants to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) but doesn’t know where to look and Lena strongly suggests that she doesn’t even try given that Johnny is something of a rake and he may even have played some role in the Nazi’s discovering her location.  She is persistent though and eventually finds Johnny, but he still believes she’s dead and assumes that this woman (who looks just a little different because of the surgery) is simply someone who looks a lot like her and Nelly opts not to come out with the truth right away.  Soon Johnny enlists Nelly to “pretend” to be his wife so that he can retrieve her money (which would otherwise be inaccessible to him).

Petzold’s last film, Barbara, was a quietly tense movie about a doctor attempting to defect from East Germany to West Germany in the early 1980s and the various quiet indignities involved in life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.  I found that film’s ending to be a bit underwhelming, but otherwise it was a very strong piece of realist cinema with a strong minimalist style.  The main connection I see between that film and this new one is that both films are trying to take a slightly unconventional approach into recent German history.  This particular film is of course all about national guilt related to the Nazi era but also about how Germany should be viewed from the Jewish perspective in the wake of the Holocaust.  One can perhaps view Nelly as a stand-in for all German Jews and Johnny as a stand-in of sorts for the Germans.  Johnny liked Nelly during good times and benefited from her skills as a singer and then betrayed her in bad times, much as Germany benefited from Jews during boom times only to turn on them.  The question then is how Nelly should respond to that.  In essence she is like an abuse victim, one who still frustratingly pines for her abuser even when everyone around her (in this case Lena) says he’s no good for her.  So is the movie suggesting that Jews should never forgive Germany?  I don’t know about that.  That nihilism would seem to clash with what we know about the actual post-war Germany, which as far as I can tell is about as contrite as any nation could possibly be.  What’s more, the movie doesn’t seem to view Lena’s brand of unforgiving tough love as being any more healthy for anyone involved than Nelly’s rush to reunite with her traitorous husband.

So there are definitely some interesting thematic things going on in the film but I do think it falters a bit on certain levels of execution that preclude it from greatness.  For one, and I know this is shallow, but the movie’s production values seemed a bit lacking to me.  I realize that there’s only ever going to be so much money involved in German movies about national guilt, but it’s still a problem that the locales here didn’t really seem appropriately bombed out and you could definitely see where certain compromises were made to accommodate budget limitations.  More importantly I kind of feel like Petzold’s realist style clashed a bit with the film’s trappings.  Movies about German cabaret lounge singers almost invite a certain tragic romanticism, especially when they contain certain melodramatic elements like the Vertigo invoking high concept here and Petzold never quite knows whether to indulge in this or fight it.  I’m also going to say that Nina Hoss’ performance never quite seemed to work for me.  She comes of more confused than tortured and just never quite connected.

One other thought I had while watching the movie is that it is perhaps told from the wrong perspective.  Imagine another version of the movie that’s told instead from the perspective of the husband rather than the returning wife.  I feel like that set-up would have added a dimension of mystery that would have helped out this film’s tonal issues a lot even if it would have made the comparisons to Vertigo even more inevitable.  Of course the perspective they did choose probably played into the film’s themes a little better and also has the obvious benefit of not forcing the audience to empathize with an unrepentant asshole, so maybe they made the right choice there.  Either way something seems to be missing here.  Make no mistake, this is a really good film.  There are some really good ideas in it and some very effective scenes but it never quite manages to be that homerun it could have been.

***1/2 out of Four

While We’re Young(7/30/2015)/Mistress America(8/30/2015)

It seems hard to believe now but there was a time when directors would as a matter of course put out at least one movie a year and often more than one and still keep a mostly consistent pace while doing so.  Take John Ford for example; in 1939 he managed to make Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk all in one year, then followed it up with a year when he managed to make both The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home, and this pace did not slow down in the ensuing years either.  Granted this was all in the factory-like studio system where he didn’t have to spearhead production himself and where he didn’t have to oversee major aspects of pre and post production, but still, you wonder when the guy found time to sleep.  Today a director who isn’t Woody Allen or maybe a Mumblecore person is unlikely to make more than one movie in any given three year period, but every once in a while it does happen.  Case in point, the indie auteur Noah Baumbach unexpectedly put out two films this year, each one set in the hip contemporary New York setting that he’s come to specialize in but dealing with very different kinds of friendships and its very hard to view either of them without considering the other and also how they fit in the shadow of Baumbach’s last film: Frances Ha.

I suppose before I can get into the two new films I should go back to Frances Ha because my opinion on that film has, shall we say, evolved over time.  When I saw the film in 2013 I liked the movie and gave it a positive three star review and if asked I’d say I probably stand by that opinion and that review… but that’s something I have to keep reminding myself because the more and more that movie was over-rated by people after its release the more negative my feelings about it became.  This is a movie that showed up in multiple to ten lists, was recently voted the ninth best movies of the decade so far by The Dissolve, the fourth best movie of the decade so far by AVClub, and has been given a place in the Criterion collection, all of which baffles me because to me it’s an incredibly minor achievement.  It doesn’t tell a particularly interesting story, it goes nowhere, it isn’t thematically rich, and aside from the fact that it was in black and white it wasn’t very stylish.  There are already too many movies that greatly overestimate how interesting the lives of middle class twenty-somethings in New York are but the character in that movie was even less remarkable than usual.  There was no relationship arc to the movie, very little comedic appeal, barely a plot at all.  Pretty much the only thing that the film has going for it is that its protagonist is fairly well drawn and it’s somewhat relatable, but what is relatability really worth?  As a middle-class twenty-something myself I did find some things in the character to relate to but the less like Frances someone is the more worthless that movie is going to be to them.  This is why relatability generally works better when it’s merely an accent to an otherwise interesting story rather than the one element you put all your chips onto.

Baumbach’s latest films certainly seem to be operating in the same milieu as Frances Ha in that both films are set in wealthy-ish areas of New York and involve young people and one of them was also co-written by and stars Greta Gerwig.  Of the two, While We’re Young is the one which is most directly in dialog with the “H-Word” (Hipster).  That movie concerns a stable married couple in their 30s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who find they’ve befriended a married couple in their 20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) almost as a sort of 1/3-life crisis.  Stiller’s character is a moderately successful documentarian and Driver’s character is also trying to break into the world of documentary filmmaking and it quickly becomes apparent that these two men have very different ideas about how documentaries should be made.  At its heart While We’re Young is about the differences between Generation X and the Millenials and it’s probably not a coincidence that it brings together the director of Reality Bites with a member of the cast of GirlsMistress America is also about interaction between generations, but it skews even younger and focuses in on a friendship between an older millennial in her late 20s named Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and a younger millennial who’s just started college named Tracy (Lola Kirke).  These two women are brought together because Tracy’s mother is engaged to Brooke’s father and with Tracy now living in New York for college they decided to contact one another, leading to a strange and in some ways tumultuous friendship.

While We’re Young is the lesser of the two films but it’s certainly not without its own indie charm.  Given his recent affinity for “the kids” it’s easy to forget that Noah Baumbach is a 46 year old man who probably has more in common with the Ben Stiller character in the film and this movie seems to be a reaction to how he feels when he’s hanging around with the Greta Gerwigs of the world.  His observations about hipsterdom are clever and perhaps different than you might expect.  For instance, the film actually shows the older characters being a lot more excited about 21st century technologies than the younger and more bohemian characters are actually infatuated with older technologies like VHS tapes and typewriters.  The film is not all cute generational observations though as it is a pretty decent character study about two people trying to cope with the fact that they’re getting older and that their marriage is starting to grow a little stale and that they need some direction in life.

That movie is a bit more comedic and Woody Allen-esque than some of Baumbach’s other recent work and is a bit more in keeping with what I would have expected out of the director post-The Squid and the WhaleMistress America, by contrast, feel a lot more like a direct follow-up to Frances Ha.  Obviously the fact that Greta Gerwig is back both as an actress and as a co-writer is a big part of that, but the movie shouldn’t be viewed as some kind of spiritual sequel to that earlier film either.  Gerwig isn’t the main character here, or at least the film isn’t told from her perspective.  Instead the film focuses on the younger character played by Lola Kirke who is having a difficult transition into college.  Kirke is really charming here and I personally found the character’s difficulty getting into the groove of college life a lot more relatable than any of Frances Halladay’s Brooklyn escapades.  Gerwig’s character is almost more important though because much of the movie is about how Kirke’s character views Brooke over the course of the movie.  At first Brooke seems like the platonic ideal of a hip New Yorker what with her network of friends, ability to get into trendy spots, and plans to open a restaurant.  Over the course of the film though she starts to see the cracks in the seams of Brook’s life and starts to forge her own identity distinct from the template her soon to be sister in law has set.

Overall, I found both of these characters more interesting than Frances Halladay and another place where I think this has a clear edge over Frances Ha is in the side characters.  At its heart, Frances Ha was really a one-woman show.  Other people like Frances’ friend/former roommate or the Adam Driver character or uh… the various other people I don’t remember much about, but none of them are really explored and they also weren’t really meant to have notable personalities either.  Here on the other hand we also have a number of other memorable characters like Tracy’s college friends played by Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas-Jones as well as a pair of yuppies that Brook tries to get money out of played by Heather Lind and Michael Chernus.  All of these characters, and a few others, all collide in a climactic sequence late in the film which almost takes on the energy and witty writing of a screwball comedy.  That’s another thing about this movie I enjoyed a lot more than Frances Ha it’s actually kind of funny at times.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone go to the movie expecting to laugh uproariously but it definitely has a level or wit that that earlier movie didn’t and the same probably goes for While We’re Young.

I guess the main thing that makes both of these movies work better for me than Frances Ha is just that they feel more… eventful.  That isn’t too hard given that Frances Ha is basically just “a couple of days in the life of a supposedly relatable hipster chick,” and I suppose one could aruge that I’m simply favoring these two films for following slightly more conventional screenplay beats, which might be a little short-sighted.  There might be a little truth in that, but at the end of the day the fact is that these movies still just did more for me, or at least Mistress America definitely did.  While We’re Young is certainly a cute movie that I enjoyed watching but which probably isn’t going to be remembered for too long.  I don’t necessarily think Mistress America  is some kind of classic either, but it did impress me more than an indie (and that’s “indie” in the very specific and Noah Baumbachy sense of the word) film has in a while.

While We’re Young: *** out of Four

Mistress America: ***1/2 out of Four